The B.C. government gets high marks from the man Ottawa appointed to revitalize Canada's treaty-making process.
Doug Eyford is urging Ottawa to follow a trail broken by British Columbia in finding reconciliation with First Nations through agreements that deliver benefits without decades of negotiations and mountains of debt.
Mr. Eyford, a Vancouver lawyer and treaty negotiator, has been Ottawa's go-to guy on a number of files related to aboriginal relations – even though the federal Conservatives aren't always happy with his answers.
Last week, Mr. Eyford released his report on the federal comprehensive claims process – the treaty-making vehicle through which Ottawa has invested more than $1-billion with little result.
"Treaty-making has progressed at a glacial pace and at significant cost," he found. Each of the three parties – provincial, federal and First Nations partners – are assigned some of the blame. But Mr. Eyford takes aim at the Conservative government where it hurts most: They have failed to ensure taxpayer's money is being spent well. He says a third party needs to be brought in to ensure accountability that is currently lacking.
In 42 years under the federal model, 26 treaties across the nation have been concluded. Many of those still in the process have little prospect of ever concluding – in fact, Mr. Eyford argues the treaty process itself has become a job-creation program for some First Nations communities that have little incentive to wrap things up.
The report called on the Crown – federal and provincial – to double down on those treaty negotiations with good prospects. But he said it's time to take a hard look at the rest, and to invest efforts and money in alternatives.
The B.C. government has long since reached this conclusion. Although it has earned criticism for undermining the treaty process, the province has produced results in other ways with more than 250 economic development pacts that are delivering benefits to First Nations communities in a fraction of the time it takes to conclude a single treaty.
"Crown-Aboriginal relations and the environment for economic development have improved as a result of the provincial government's purposeful approach," Mr. Eyford wrote in his 92-page report to federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.
Mr. Valcourt's tepid response to the Eyford report amounted to a vague promise to consult some more. John Rustad, B.C.'s Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, was far more enthusiastic. "The report confirms what we in B.C. have known for some time: The current treaty process is expensive and takes too long," he said in a statement. "The province agrees we need to find new and innovative ways to achieve lasting reconciliation with First Nations."
The Eyford report catalogues in detail how B.C. has moved toward reconciliation.
B.C. shares provincial revenue from mining, forestry and other resources with First Nations. It has signed 16 "incremental treaty agreements" in the past two years that transfer provincial Crown land so that Aboriginal communities can get on with economic and community development opportunities. It has provided tens of millions of dollars to allow First Nations to obtain equity stakes in clean energy and pipeline developments. And it has reached a series of "reconciliation framework agreements" that include decision-making, revenue-sharing, economic and social-development elements.
Mr. Eyford is less impressed, however, with B.C.'s recent handling of the B.C. Treaty Commission. The Premier, in her haste to push Ottawa and First Nations toward a new model for negotiations, has reversed her support for new chief commissioner, George Abbott, and suggested the treaty commission might be best shut down.
In his report, Mr. Eyford says the treaty commission has been hampered by the limits imposed on it by the federal and provincial governments. He sees a role for the treaty commission, with an expanded mandate, to complete those treaties that are in reach, and to help usher those others out the door in a constructive way. "There is a critical need for oversight throughout the process, a role the commission could take on."
The Premier's stand on the treaty commissioner is aimed at trying to get Ottawa to shift its resources from treaty-making to more broadly supporting other kinds of settlements.
But her strategy is risky. Other provinces have secured federal support for the settlement of treaties, but the new B.C. model, so far, has proceeded without any federal dollars. Ottawa may simply use the Eyford report as grounds to turn off the taps on the treaty process, and leave the B.C. government and industry to continue down the reconciliation path on their own dime.